(First shared 10th April 2008)
Kirakira, Makira Province, Solomon Islands
Through the windshield of the De Havilland Twin Otter, Makira’s main airport appears as a strip of green grass sliced between two walls of encroaching bush. It is cut across the top end of a narrow headland, from one rocky shore to the other, so that as we approach the touch-down the wheels hang scant feet above pounding surf, restless and white against the dark reef. I catch sight of leaning palm-trees and brown thatch-roofed huts perched flush with the shoreline. Behind, and steep hills rise up, lush and green and apparently impenetrable. I tense a little as the pilot lines the plane up with the improbably short landing strip. The dinky little seats in this dinky little aircraft reach about halfway up my back and fold forwards if you push them. The brace position briefly crosses my mind and I wonder how I’m supposed to do that against a floppy seat-back.
I don’t know it yet, but forty-eight hours from now, clinging to a small metal boat bucking in the oceanic swells of the Pacific, I’ll be longing for the sanctity of a nice light aircraft hanging far above the churning water…
I’m in the Solomons for a bit of an orientation to the Pacific. Get to know the staff, touch base with some local partners, do a little scenario planning, visit a few project sites. The usual. Well, I wish it was the usual. I do seem to spend more time than I’d like stuck at a desk. The way I see it, doing a desk job out in Australia is bad enough. Doing one in a place where the demands for professionalism are just as high but the electricity goes out, the support systems are pants, the server crashes on a weekly basis, and there’s no Domino’s Pizza to call at the end of a busy day of overtime when you finally make it home, is positively masochistic.
Makira lies about an hour’s flight south of Honiara. Maybe half the size of Guadalcanal, it’s probably the third or fourth largest island in the archipelago, but on a map of the world is a tiny speck that you’d wipe at for an accidental spot of dirt.
Honiara’s domestic terminal is far and away the shabbiest airport I’ve been in for a capital city. Though I confess I never flew domestic in West Africa. Glory be. It rained the night before, so the linoleum floor of the departure area is under a film of filthy brown water. I place my pack on the scales at the check-in counter and hold it gingerly upright to prevent the straps from trailing in the muck. Then settle in to wait.
Departure time comes and goes. This doesn’t really surprise me. What would surprise me is if we left on time. Then I’d probably begin to wonder what was going on. I’d probably start to worry.
A guy comes out and announces the hold-up. The plane is overweight. We’re carrying too much baggage. Three hundred and forty kilos-worth of too much baggage. This is impressive, as the plane only seats about fifteen people, and I know for a fact that my pack weighs about ten. I’m sitting next to a sweet middle-aged lady called Joy. Her husband heads up the work of YWAM in the Solomons. She confides in me that Solomon Islanders always treat airplanes like buses and load them correspondingly. She has a patient weariness for the foibles of her own folk.
Some people, including passengers, shuffle off through a back door to sort the problem out. Eventually I see a wizened Philippino- the only other non-Islander on the flight- stroll out of the terminal. Then the flight is ready to go and we are shown back out of the same door and straight onto the apron. I ask Bridgit, our program manager who I am travelling with, what the story is. She says that it’s okay. One of the passengers, the Philippino, agreed to get off the flight and travel tomorrow.
“What about the luggage?” I ask. She shrugs.
“Hem get too complicated to sort. After hem Philippino leave hem pilot say hem okay.”
I think back to the little old Asian casually strolling out of the terminal, sans cargo. I weigh in at around eighty kilos. He couldn’t have clocked in at more than two thirds my weight on a full stomach and wearing heavy shoes. The number ‘three-hundred and forty’ drifts subtly through my mind with little blinking lights on it. I do the maths in my head and come back wanting. But we’ve now reached the aircraft and are squeezing into the cramped little cabin. I find myself sitting next to Micah, another staff member, and he is sweating profusely. The plane has no air-conditioning. I can’t tell if that’s the reason he’s sweating, or if he’s made the same calculations I have.
Against all the odds, however, the little Twin Otter jerks into the sky after just a few seconds of acceleration and climbs easily into the clouds. I catch glimpses of beautiful, rugged Guadalcanal in the clear patches between cloudbanks and find myself wondering whether it looks any different now than it would have to the thousands of airmen who flew missions over the exact same airspace sixty-five years ago during the Second World War, or as its known locally, the “Bikfela Faet”.
The Twin Otter trundles down Kirakira’s grassy strip with a minimum of fuss. It’s a Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft, perfectly suited to this sort of island-hopping where flat ground is in short supply. The arrivals terminal is a tin-roofed shack on the other side of a muddy ditch and disembarking passengers- and their three hundred and forty excess kilos of luggage- pick their way gingerly past the hazard and on to the dirt track beyond.
I’m travelling down to see projects at the south-eastern tip of the island. It’s about two hours by boat. There are no roads. It would probably take two weeks to walk it through the mountainous terrain. We own a couple of fifteen-foot aluminium boats with outboard motors- OBMs. They are basic but resilient- unlike the fibreglass skiffs used by most folks here, which have an unsettling habit of breaking apart in big seas.
I go down to the harbour the next morning at nine. It’s Sunday. It’s been raining most of the night and I’ve been listening to it hammering on the roof of the guest-house I’m staying in. Freshwinds is run by an educated but quietly-spoken Solomon Islander called Noel. I gather he was formerly something to do with the government and has travelled as far afield as London, England and Dakar, Senegal, but informs me without equivocation that he dislikes the process of travelling. He tells me that he found Dakar frightening, and that he felt he didn’t know which of the black-faced Africans he could trust, so he just stayed in his hotel-room. I don’t smirk, but sitting there looking at a man who’s skin is darker than many of my African friends’, I want to.
Down at the harbour, the wind is still blowing and the rain is coming down. Green waves are rolling into the shore. There is a decrepit wooden passenger boat out in the surf, something that looks like it broke free from a Mississippi river-dock and which I wouldn’t ride across a millpond, much less a wide stretch of the seething Pacific Ocean. It is pitching and bucking and rolling around three axes at once, the sort of motion that makers of mechanical bulls aspire to. I watch it for some time, then look at our little aluminium-hull OBMs, a fraction of the length of the tossing barge. Then I set my backpack down and sit on a lifejacket and wait for someone to tell us that it’s not safe to go.
Micah, who will be my guide, and Obed, our skipper, seem confident that the boats should be okay. I sense a little hesitation, and a little bluster, and a distinct lack of foundation for their opinion. Bridgit shows up and adds some rational caution to the mix. I say nothing, but my sense of self-preservation sides firmly with Bridgit. As soon as she steps away, Micah tells me with a gleam in his eye,
“It’s okay. We can go. If we were taking the ladies we wouldn’t go. But we’re men. We don’t get scared.”
Yeah. Uh, sure Micah.
Eventually David, the other boat driver, shows up on his bicycle. He’s heard on the radio that a storm warning has been issued for Makira. The decision is made for us and we stay. I try to look dissapointed. For Obed and Micah.
We leave a little before eight the next morning. It has rained through much of the night, but the air is still and the swell has settled somewhat. The sky is broken and promising a mixed bag of weather, but everybody seems much happier that this is a good day for boating. I’m also much happier. The passenger-boat is still there and still rolling around a little, but I put that down to the fact that it has a hull that is better suited for travel in a bathtub. It is crammed with passengers and I feel sick on their behalf just looking at them. We launch the boat into the breaking waves and the sea is warm against my bare legs before I haul myself over the rim and hop in. There are two young men crewing and these grab a pair of wooden paddles and keep us straight while Obed fiddles with the motor. He yanks it alive with the rip-cord, twists a long plastic tube which doubles as tiller and throttle, and we lurch forward into the harbour.
Everything about the ride is exhilerating. The speed. The bite of the flat hull against the waves. The plumes of white spray thrown either side of the bow. The warm wind on our faces and the leaping of the boat with the undulation of the water and the taste of salt on our tongues. It’s overcast, but the horizon is split by beams of angled sunlight that set the sea into burning pools of silver. These are interrupted by great masses of dark cloud that drop in off-vertical columns of squalling rain obscuring the distance.
The water beneath the hull is dark, a dull grey-green colour. We follow the coastline. It is jagged and inhospitable. There is little sign of habitation. None of development. Mostly the green bush pushes right to the water’s edge, and there are just a few feet of sharp volcanic rock or reef seperating land from water. Sometimes we are just fifty feet off-shore. Rarely more than five hundred.
Breakers pound the island. The sea is calmer than yesterday, but still restless from some weather system beyond our line of sight. It rolls beneath us, then rises up into blue-green waves that dash themselves against the rocks. We skim just behind a break-point, close enough to the rocks that if we were to throw a glass bottle we could smash it. I count in my head. Five seconds after the swell rolls beneath us, it has dashed itself into a spray of white foam. Obed steers us expertly around the headland as the winds and currents make chaos of the choppy waves. We bounce around hard but come to no grief.
The shoreline is quite spectacular. A sequence of uneven promentories and inlets, it is the epitome of rugged. It appears unchanged from what it must have looked like a thousand years before the first people landed here. In the two and a half hours of the first leg of the journey we see only the merest signs of habitation. Snatches of wooden huts lurking behind stands of palms in a rare depression between steep hills. A canoe drawn up on a black lava-sand beach. No people at all. Nobody else is out on the water. It is too rough.
Nobody, except the second boat. They catch up to us about forty minutes into the journey. Obed is guiding us around yet another fierce headland. Great plunging breakers rise up sharply out of nowhere then crash down on the point. The swells seem to be coming from no particular direction, and we lurch up and down and side to side. The breakers beside us are a good couple of metres in height. They are choppy and irregular. They rise up sharply and dive straight down against the rocks. The sort of thing surfers see in their nightmares then wake up sweating. The swells are rising to our left and the shore is to our right. Obed slows the boat. He is counting the swells. Finally he sees what he likes and guns the engine. In my mind I picture the Argo slipping between Jason’s clashing rocks. But we don’t have a dove to test the passage. We shoot through and race down the face of a moving mound of water that looks taller than we are until we are past the headland, and then Obed re-angles the boat and we slip between a lifeless islet and the coast, where the water sloshes about choppily as it rebounds off the rocks.
I watch the other OBM. I wonder if we look anything like they do. Engines flat out, the boat skipping along the crests of the waves, creamy white foam plowing out on either side of the bow, the hull two-thirds out of the water at any given time and the occupants huddled low at the gunwhales as the sea rips away beneath them. I hope we do. They look like they’re having fun. They look cool.
So does Obed. He is dressed in shabby shorts and an old t-shirt, but he stands upright in the back of the boat, rock-steady, his eyes fixed with utter concentration on the waves rolling towards us, reading them like a musician reads the notes of a concerto. His left hand is on the tiller. His right hand holds a knobbled wooden flagpole. One end of the flagpole he has planted in the handle of one of the jerry-cans. From the other snaps our tattered NGO flag. He sees it as his duty to make sure everybody knows who we are. Throughout our journey, for two days, he stands there, legs braced, one hand on the tiller and the other holding the flag. Like a warrior with his standard. A challenge to the elements. Proud. He looks like a hero. Like a collossus.
We round yet another headland. A beam of sunlight breaks through the grey. It catches on the cliff-face we are following. Verdant foliage drips down the rocks like a lush curtain of life. It shines a bright and vibrant green. Tree crowns burst out above the lip of the cliff a hundred feet above the shoreline, bulging as if frozen trying to escape the ground and take flight. The cliffs are undercut, a great round gouge like half a tunnel taken out of the earth, and at their base the breakers are pounding. They are great curling plungers, and in the narrow shaft of sunlight they glow turquoise like a semi-precious stone, white foam streaked down their backs and translucent in their brief moment of glory before expiring in a spectacular display of power. It is, briefly, like a lost world.
An old steel freighter lies wrecked against the shore. It was once white. It is now orange and brown, streaked and disintegrating, listing a little to one side with windows smashed and everything perishable long-since perished. I feel strangely sad for it, abandoned as it is along a stretch of uninhabited coast. I wonder what its story might be. I am filled with an insatiable desire to go and explore it. But there is a reef between us and it. The seas have calmed down a little here, though when we pass back the next afternoon the waves are back up, and as each set rolls through, they strike the rounded stern of the ship and leap violently upwards in a perfectly symmetrical fan of white spray, delicious and satisfying.
We reach Na Mugha. It’s the main town in the southern part of the island. There’s a sheltered inlet here. The town itself has a couple of hundred people, little more than an extended family. Malachi walks me through it. I leave my shoes in the boat. The sun is shining. Huts are scattered beneath the shade of leafy trees. Mangroves form a border where the village ends. It is peaceful and idyllic, but also grubby. Like so many other places I have seen in the third world, it feels like an uncomfortable collision between tradition and modernity, and the outcome is thoroughly dissatisfying. Here, modernity is perhaps absent in most physical terms, but you can see it gnawing at the people, dressed as they are in Australian beach cast-offs, listless and unfulfilled. We don’t stay long. People chuckle as I put on suncream and a cap. Hem whiteman, hem burn easy.
The area is called Star Harbour. On the map it’s a crazy peninsula at the south-eastern end of Makira that looks like an inverted fjord, wiry inlets eating their way into a long bent finger of low-lying land. We’re heading for the far side of the peninsula now, but not by going around. By going through. A natural channel is cut into the mangrove swamp, and we ease our way into the saline canal. The passage is narrow, just three times the width of our boat at the widest. The tide is low and the mangrove roots are a tangled mass of wooden digits digging into the dark wet mud. The water is smooth and black and as Obed eases back on the throttle we set up a small bow-wave which rolls along with us and laps quietly up against the trunks.
It is quiet. Eerily beautiful, almost sinister. A light shower sprinkles down on us, cool and refreshing. One of the crew boys is perched on the tip of the bow, watching for the water depth. After a while, Obed cuts the engine and lifts the propeller back into the boat. We ride onwards with the paddles, and the only sound is the gentle splash of wood breaking water, and the occasional metallic clunk as an oar hits the hull. It seems strangely quiet after the constant roar of the motor. Birds are singing in the jungle, but we don’t see them.
When the boat can go no further, we dismount. My feet sink deeply into the fine wet mud and I feel it ooze around my toes. I wade the short distance to where the channel becomes dry land. Mudskippers, little creatures that may be fish or may be amphibians, are disturbed by my passage. About two inches long, they erupt from their concealment in the shallow mud and quite literally skip along the surface of the water, leaving little plopped circles in their wake as they seek safer ground.
We walk up a stream bed for a short while. It is wet and a little muddy. We crest a shallow rise. The jungle in every direction is thick and lush and beneath the grey sky, quite dark. I have the impression of a place that gets a lot of rain. Up ahead the trees are thinning and I can see more light. Sea. We’ve crossed the narrow peninsula. It took about fifteen minutes in the OBM, and another fifteen on foot, maybe. A pretty small place, all things considered.
The villages on the far side of the peninsula are basic, isolated little things a long way away from the contemporary world. There are five of them, dotted along a wide shallow bay backed by sheer forested hills that are straight out of the set of Lost. At either end of the bay, sharp promentories rise to sheer cliffs that are book-ends to the cove, blocking them in. You could look at it as a prison. Or you could look at it as a haven. It’s all about perspective.
I walk with Micah. In Honiara he had been a shy, almost muppet-like character, with hooded eyes and a long face. Out here he has a cheeky spring to his step and he smiles a lot and chats. We walk among huts with brown sago-palm roofs and woven walls and stop periodically to talk to villagers, who are curious as to what a white man is doing wandering through their back yard. All things considered, I don’t really have a very good explanation for them. But I’m enjoying myself.
A coconut drops from a palm a few feet away and swishes through the air before landing with a heavy thunk. I feel the sand reverberate with the impact. In its shell it is shaped like a lop-ended American football, but maybe half as big again. And about sixty times heavier. If one actually hit you it would be like getting hit by a number fifteen bowling ball dropped from a fourth-storey window. One of those big black ones. Shiny and smooth and brain-smooshingly heavy.
I stop to talk with a primary-school teacher. With our organization’s help she is teaching twenty-seven kids aged three to six how to read and count and play fair and all the other skills that young kids need to have to get ready for school. Her classroom is a thatched hut fifty yards from the beach a little larger than my bedroom in Melbourne. The beams across the ceiling force me to duck. I see numbers written on a poster on one wall and, beside them, words in a language I don’t understand. I assume it’s the local tongue and I ask her what it’s called.
“Estahaba Language,” I hear her say. I repeat the unfamiliar syllables, and she says again for emphasis, “Language of Esta Haba.”
I realise she is saying Language of Star Harbour. I want to ask her what the language’s own name for itself is, but don’t have the energy to wrestle with the tortologies of cross-cultural misinterpretations.
Obed and I walk along the beach. It is sandy with shells and little bits of flotsam. At high tide the waves wash up to where we are walking, but currently the tide is out, exposing a broad lagoon some two hundred yards wide that fronts the entire bay. It curves like a half-moon along the inner curve of the shore, no more than knee-deep all the way out to a rocky reef where we can see children in threadbare shorts with fishing-lines, standing just out of reach of the breaking waves. The water is the temperature of a tepid bath and is light blue. You could build a luxury resort and a helipad here, rake the sand once a day, and make a killing.
We find Micah, and he has procured coconuts. Coconut palms are the great gift of the Pacific. A source of food, of perfectly clean water, and the leaves provide shade and shelter for countless villages. He hacks the top off one for me and I drink. Wherever there are coconuts we don’t need to worry about carrying water. The things are sterile inside. So sterile that in the second world war- and many improvised contexts since- hospitals used them to replace IV fluid when stocks ran out.
We walk back to the boat. We find a trio of local villagers, making a journey to Na Mugha, where we are also headed. They are a father, a teenage daughter, and a young son, probably eleven or twelve. They are classic Melanesia. The father dressed in ragged bermuda shorts and a stained shirt. The daughter in a vibrant red cotton tank-top and a stonewash demin skirt, both as clean as if she were about to head out to a movie with her friends at the mall. The son in dirty shorts and a holey t-shirt. The father is carrying a small package not much bigger than a wallet, wrapped in newspaper. The daughter, whose wiry black hair is done up in Princess Leia-like braids around her ears, is carrying an umbrella and a machete. They have a small wooden canoe about the size of a large kayak. We offer to give them a ride, and the father sends his son off in the canoe alone down the mangrove channel, while he and his daughter join us in the aluminium boat.
I watch the son perch himself in the back of the canoe and start paddling. The little vessel is gone in seconds, gliding silently and smoothly between the trees. It’s an uncanny sight. The kid looks tiny, but he drives the thing as though he’s joined to it at the waist. I am struck by a moment’s envy. We start off a couple of minutes later. The father opens his packet and breaks out the betel nut and lime, and moments later he, his daughter, and half our crew have wide blood-red smiles and crimson teeth, and are spitting great spews of the stuff into the oily black waters of the swamp. It’s charming. Really.
We escape the channel about eight or nine minutes later and get out to where it widens into the bay. It’s only now that we catch up to the boy, still paddling mechanically, the canoe steady and smooth and running fast and true beneath him. We stop briefly in Na Mugha. Enough time for a nibble and a chatter beneath the shade of a tree. Then the tide is right, and both boats load up and start moving again.
The fun starts almost immediately. The wind has really picked up. In the little harbour the water is smooth, but we can see it foaming at the reef break a few hundred yards out. We clear the first headland and straight-line it for the gap which Obed knows is there. He’s back to his stance. Legs apart. Left hand on the tiller. Right hand holding the flag. The collossus. I’ll never forget that vision. We run straight into the first of a rolling set of waves and the nose pitches up and we fly, then hit a second, and then a third. Obed hoots wildly. This is the part of the job he enjoys.
We buckle down and hang on. Obed skirts us around the edge of the reef and we ride the rolling swells for a while, then cut back close to the shore, inside the reef again and across a shallow lagoon. The water is calm again. We catch a little respite here. We are almost at the end of the peninsula. Obed slows the OBM. The reef rises to within a foot of the water’s surface and we pick our way through channels, careful not to bite the propeller against the rocks. It is exquisitely beautiful, even beneath the tumultous sky. The water just a few feet deep, clear and clean and turquoise in colour. A couple of kilometres long, half a kilometre wide, hemmed in on one side by reef, by the other by mangrove, and just beneath the surface a maze of reef and fine sand running in crazy patterns across the floor. A better snorkelling spot I have rarely seen.
We join the other boat. They have not pulled out into the ocean but are waiting for us. I sense a little tension. Past the edge of the lagoon the waves are really kicking. I can’t see an obvious passage through. The islands- our destination- are off in the distance, about five or six k’s off the tip of the peninsula, out on their own as if cast off into the ocean. Beyond them in every direction is just empty horizon. The Pacific. Thousands and thousands and thousands of miles of it. It feels like the edge of the world.
Obed guns the engine and we lurch forward, skimming along the smooth water of the lagoon and aiming for the safe zone only he knows about. We break back through into the choppy swell and curve around the top end of a tree-covered islet no bigger than a football pitch. The sea is a restless grey-green colour and overhead the clouds form a ceiling. There are squalls closing in from the ocean not far away, and we can see grey sheets of rain like translucent curtains, concealing the horizon. The wind is blowing hard. I take my cap off and stuff it down the front of my life-jacket so it doesn’t get ripped off my head. And then we’re racing away from Makira and out into the passage.
The northernmost tip of New Zealand is known as Cape Reinga. For those that haven’t been there, it’s a worthwhile vista. The rugged hills of Northland are honed down by nature’s whim into a long narrow peninsula that eventually crumbles into the sea. From an elevated vantage point, visitors can stand beneath the lighthouse and watch where two Oceans collide- from the west, the Indian, and from the east, the Pacific. It’s an unforgettable sight not just because the masses of water are such different colours, but because where they mix is an orderless chaos of water- waves ramming into one another and great plumes of spray leaping into the air.
I lie if I try to say that our crossing is like that. But as we pass the end of the island, the forces at work are similar, if on a smaller scale. In the persistant cross-wind, the currents come together in a relentless barrage of swells sweeping in from no good orderly direction. We navigate one set of waves head-on, only to have another set come at us from the side moments later. Great haystacks of water, seemingly without purpose, come at us from different directions. Sitting on the aluminium bench seat in the hull, they seem very large. I lose sight of land regularly even though it is only a couple of miles away. Sometimes all I can see are crests of moving water everywhere I look. The sky overhead is like a concrete ceiling. The water dark and distinctly sinister. I find myself holding on to the little handle welded to the lip of the boat and bracing my feet.
The OBM doesn’t so much cut through the waves as bitch-slap them. Being long, the flat hull launches up one wave and strikes the next without riding fully into the trough, coming down with all the subtlety and grace of a belly-flop. The bangs of metal against hard water are resounding and unending, every second or two with consistent irregularity, juddering through my body with every new swell we hit. I begin to wonder just how well the thing has been welded together.
Water comes at us from all sides. With the blowing wind there is no shelter. Every wave we split sends up a great explosion of salty spray that pours over us. I am soaked through seconds after entering the fray, and remain so throughout the crossing. Once I lift my water-streaked sunglasses to see better, and I find my eyes are so constantly drenched with stinging salt that I have to close them again until I replace the glasses. Water pours down my face so I have to open my mouth to breath, and for every lungful of air I take I get half a mouthful of water to go with it, so that I am constantly either spitting the stuff out, or swallowing it. After a while I begin to feel like an extra in a shipwreck movie, with some stage-hand just off-set heaving bucket after bucket of water over me from the side. I fail to grasp how exactly the little boat doesn’t swamp.
We come down off a crest and another hits us at forty-five degrees. The heavy bow ploughs into the water and the force of the wave hits us. The boat yaws. It’s a disconcerting feeling. It’s the feeling of the boat no longer under its own power, but under the power of the moving water. It’s the sort of feeling you imagine preceeds that sickening lurch as one side of the boat is jerked beneath the waterline and the sea pours in. I stiffen slightly every time I feel it.
Through the journey Obed stands like a giant, never unbalanced, never fazed. One hand on the tiller, the other holding the flag. The hero. Obed. Son of Boaz. Father of Jesse, the father of David, King of Israel. The Bible doesn’t have much to say about Obed. You’re tempted to think if he gave seed to a guy like King David he’d have some good qualities about him. Certainly our Obed gives the name a good run for its money. He just watches the ocean, face passive, steering us one way as a line of swell sweeps through, then angling the boat and racing down the steep face of another before neatly slipping off it and finding our path again. He is infatiguable. The waves never stop, never give us a break, but if it bothers him, it never shows. The only time he demonstrates any emotion is when the boat hits a particularly big set of waves and we buck and toss like a bad-tempered bull, and he gives an exhilerated holler, then rides on.
We lose sight of the other boat for long seconds at a time. Sometimes for more than half a minute, although it’s just a hundred and fifty yards away. It vanishes in the roiling swells, down in a trough while we ride on a crest, then up when we’re down, and we see nothing. When twenty or thirty seconds go by without any sign of the boat I see heads start to crane, a little anxiously. It tells me that the crew are taking the sea seriously. It tells me they know things could go wrong out here. But eventually it’s there, dismally small and fragile in the tossing seas, finally angling for Santa Ana while we head for Santa Catalina.
Flying fish pop out of the water. Little things that look like oversized sardines, maybe four or six inches long with metallic blue bodies and wings that jut straight out sideways. They appear from the waves near the bow and then hang there, gliding for fifteen, twenty, thirty seconds as the wind takes them, racing along inches above the water with their little tails angled down and looking for all the world like miniature Tomahawk cruise missiles until they plop back down into the grey waters and vanish from sight.
I crouch in the boat. The wind is cold on my wet skin. Every dousing with the water counterintuitively warms me up for a few seconds. The water is pleasant, so that I want to hop overboard and soak myself for a while and escape the constant chilling of the wind. No part of me is dry; I may as well have done-so.
I think of the story from the New Testament of the storm the disciples found themselves in on the Sea of Galilee. I imagine it must have looked a little like this. Rocking and tipping, water splashing. Only theirs was a wooden boat, and had no outboard motor to get them to dry land. And they wore no life-jackets. I try to imagine what it must have felt like with no other safety-net. Except Jesus, asleep in the bow. How He slept I have no idea. But I admit that He makes a pretty good safety-net. Even better than life-jackets and aluminium hulls and 40-horsepower outboards. I try to imagine the shock and awe the disciples must have sensed when that storm went quiet from words spoken from His lips. The silence once the hissing and roaring of water and wind had fallen still. Ears ringing in the quiet. Cowering there at His feet those first few seconds I wonder which power terrified them more; the power of the storm that could swamp them, or the power that created the storm in the first place, and could silence it again with a simple command.
We get into the lee of the two islands. We are heading for the smaller, Santa Catalina. The sea becomes more regular. Swollen, but regular. We slip through the reef and approach a beach and a row of palms concealing more scant huts. Brown figures wave at us from the shore. There are green waves pounding the sand. Obed eases off the throttle and we bob as they roll beneath us and strike the earth seconds later. He is watching the sets, looking for a gap. He turns the boat in a little circle. Still looking for a safe way to put ashore. Again we turn. Again he looks. Then we signal the shore that we will come back tomorrow. No way to get the boat safely onto the island. The waves are too fierce.
We lurch back out into the fray and navigate for Santa Ana. We’ve been out in the rough stuff for a little while now. The clouds are heavy and the sea is a hard blue colour, cold and deep and dark. We skirt reefs and roll over the backs of breakers. The shore is a mix of sand and cliffs and jagged rocks, and everywhere the surf looks heavy. As we swing around the north side of the island we are on the windward side, and the wind that has been blowing throughout hits us with full force. There is nothing between us and the coast of Chile right now.
The waves in those last few minutes are the biggest we’ve seen yet. We hit a set of four or five giants that has the boat more out of the water than in it, hitting us relentlessly. Obed hollers again. He’s enjoying himself. The rest of us are giving big wet grins. It’s fun in the way that a roller-coaster is fun. A really wet roller-coaster. With no attendant and no safety-bar and no off-switch.
Then we are through the last reef and there is a beach with boats drawn up and people watching us approach. Obed times our approach, then rides a low roller in onto the shore, and we leap out and haul the boat up the short steep beach, and the trip is over. My body is tired and bruised and aching from the strain of holding myself steady in the rocking craft. It feels good to have dry land under my bare feet again. Very good.
The village is like many others I’ve seen in the Pacific. Settled on the sand of the back-beach among a scattering of palms and other leafy trees. Constructed from dried sago-palm leaves wrapped around a wooden frame. Light, fragile, practical. There are a couple of more substantial buildings, with clap-board siding and tin roofs. World Vision installed a water system here several years ago and it’s still functioning, with community stand-pipes dotted about the communities with a tap for gathering water and another higher one for showering under. The network of pipes connecting the thing are partially buried in the sand. I trip on one and stumble elegantly forward. It’s a basic system, but so much better than what most villages around here employ. Which is nothing.
There is a concrete church with a tall empty gas cylinder mounted on a cross-post that acts as the village bell. It is rung throughout the day to signify the passing of time. Morning service, evening service, and other events I am not privvy to. Sometimes it is rung slowly, sometimes quickly. When it’s rung quickly it sounds like an alarm-bell, but in fact the traditional alarm system is still the blowing of the conch shell. I don’t hear it on this trip, but I’ve heard it blown in a village along the coast from Madang. It’s a rich, round sound that has a thrill to it. I think we should use them instead of fire alarms. They sound way cooler.
Micah and I are put in a rest-house to stay. It’s a nice building comparatively. It has a tin roof and separate rooms with doors and beds and a small kitchenette with one kerosene stove-top. There’s a latrine outside, and a shower point as well. We wash the salt off ourselves and our sodden clothes and hang them to dry outside. Then we walk down to the village store to buy some food for dinner. It is a dark concrete building with bare shelves. It is dismally sparse. They have a few packets of instant noodles, a few packets of dry biscuits, and several dozen tins of assorted tuna, mackerel and tinned beef. The tuna reminds me of cat food. The beef of the Jellymeat we used to feed our dog back in New Zealand when I was little. There is no rice. We end up taking some from Obed’s family and eat a dissatisfying meal of overboiled rice, cold brown tuna and instant noodles.
At dusk the owners of the rest-house bring us kerosene hurricane-lamps. There is an enourmous spider in my room, a few inches from the headboard of my bed. Large enough that when I catch it in the beam of my flashlight, its beady eyes reflect the light like cats-eyes in the middle of the road. I’m not thrilled. There’s a large millipede in the sink, a creepy, slithery thing, all segments and legs and pincers. Micah has never seen one before, although as the seagull flies his village is just thirty kilometers from here. He’s terrified of it and spends most of the evening trying to flush it down the drainpipe. He’s successful once and we put the plug in. It resurfaces later on despite his best efforts, and he isn’t happy.
I sleep beneath my mosquito net. I haven’t slept under a net since Darfur, and I realise I’ve missed it. There’s something cozy about the fine mesh hemming you in, something very protective. It’s not about the mosquitoes, or about the malaria. It’s something deeper than that. Irrational that a fine web of tiny threads should make you feel safe. I am in bed by around eight, exhausted. I choose not to look for the large spider by the light of my headlamp and trust that if I give it space, it’ll give me space. An unspoken deal. A few minutes after the light goes out I hear rustling footsteps on the wooden boards. Pads and claws the size of a small panda seem to be scuttling across my floor. I turn my light on but see nothing. Later I also discover two cockroaches have taken up residence inside my bag of fried banana chips, visible through the clear plastic. I surrender that particular snack to them and move on.
I sleep heavily. The rain awakens me at a time I have no idea of. It is hammering on the tin roof. It’s a sound I love. A sound I sleep to. It’s also a sound that worries me a little as I think of the weather and our need to leave the island tomorrow morning. But I needn’t worry. When we get up, the sky is grey and raining intermittently, but the air is still. The sea is a light grey-blue hue and is calm as a lake, with lapping waves tickling the shore. It’s like a different ocean. Yesterday, heavy green breakers. Today, a smooth lagoon.
The morning I walk to the other side of the island to see some gardens and wells, then return and meet with village elders to talk about disaster safety. Then we ride on. The boat glides easily through the sheltered lagoon leaving a creamy wake and I look down into the light blue water and drape my hand in the warm sea. I am filled again with the urge to jump overboard and go for a swim or a snorkel. The crossing to Santa Catalina is gentle, and I see more livelihoods project work and talk with more villagers. I’m told that the island has the sweetest coconuts going, and when I taste them I find it’s true. I suck the juice down with gusto. When we finally move on, we have a dozen of them piled in the hull of the boat, and Micah is smirking like the cat that got the cream.
It’s afternoon. The sea has picked up a little, but the ride is nothing like it was the day before. The swells are steady and predictable, and we cross the passage with no real effort. The seas slowly build as the afternoon wears on, roughest and choppiest as we round headlands. It rains lightly. The wind keeps the spray dousing us and I eventually shelter beneath a tarpaulin to stay warm.
Obed spies circling flocks of terns swooping and diving on the surface.of the sea in the near distance and adjusts our course. He pulls out a fishing-line and tries to capitalise on the shoals that are just below the surface, but catches nothing. We re-aim for the coast. We see a little fibreglass hull outboard riding low and heavy among the waves, piled with cargo, three men clinging precariously to the sides. It looks like one mis-timed swell will swamp the thing. Later, we spot another, barely above the waves and close in to a rocky shore. It is bobbing, and there are people in the water nearby. We pull close to see if they need assistance, but find a man and two women with bouys, floating their cargo onto the mainland. A few minutes later around another headland I spot something low in the water and watch the spot for more movement. Two rounded backs with sharp curved fins atop break the surface, then dive back down again. A pair of dolphins playing in the surf.
We reach Kirakira late in the afternoon. Boats are supposed to be off the water by four, but it’s nearly five. It’s been a long slog back up the coast and we’re all tired. As we pull up to the shore I go to get out of the boat and finally get my wish for a swim in the warm sea as I catch my leg and drop back-first into the harbour, much to the amusement of the crowd of onlookers. I don’t get much wetter.
I am due to fly back to Honiara the next day, but Solomon Airlines sends the plane to a different province instead and cancels the flight. I don’t complain. Another day in quiet little Makira is just what the doctor ordered, and I have a nice chat with Bridgit about how to manage her team if an emergency strikes. It rains heavily throughout the day, and I stand on the narrow decking of our little office-building and watch the water cascading off the roof, and the haze of airborne spray gradually obscuring the greenery of the forest into a grey mist a few hundred yards away. When the SolAir flight finally arrives at eight the next morning, the sky is still and dry, clear except for the towering anvils on the far horizon catching the low morning light. The Twin Otter is airborne just fifteen seconds after powering up the engines, and Makira drops away beneath us.
This is the good bit of the job I get to do. A bit of adventure. Some beautiful scenery. Laid-back communities for whom life may not be idyllic, but for whom it’s not so bad, either. My little trip down Makira has undoubtedly been the highlight of my time in the Pacific so far. Some of you have been hearing far more about the lowlights. I would love to be able to say that this really is just another day in the office, but sadly the reality is that most days I spend at my laptop, writing reports and sending emails, like pretty much every other chump out there who’s powering The System.
Ten years from now though, it’s days like the days I spent in Makira that I’ll look back on and recall with fondness, while the grey, repetitive hours droning away in my cubicle will fade into sameness and insignificance. Maybe that’s why I keep pressing on with what I do. Waiting for the meaningless to fade into obscurity, and clinging to the gems of memory that I know are so precious. The landmarks that will trace my life through the years, that provide some anchor and reference to look back on.
The stuff that someday, as some of you have suggested, I might stick in my book…
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